The Another Country Festival, an LGBTQ and POC-focused Americana/Country music festival will be held in Brooklyn, New York on July 2. This year’s host/organizers will be the group Karen & The Sorrows, comprised of singer-songwriter Karen Pittelman, pedal-steel guitarist Elana Redfield, and drummer Tami Johnson.
After years of hosting The Gay Ole Opry and the Queer Country Quarterly, Pittelman decided it was time to put together a festival to showcase all of the queer, trans, and POC talent in Country music—and what better time to do so than the weekend before July 4? In Pittelman’s words, “There has always been a relationship between what country music stands for and what this country stands for, and, as musicians, I think part of our job is to question both. So I wanted to bring together some of my favorite queer, trans, and/or POC musicians to think about all this, about how Country and Americana music get positioned politically, about racism and the construction of genre, and about what it means to claim the music you love for your own lives and communities.”
In addition to organizing Another Country, Karen & the Sorrows are also gearing up to release their new album, The Narrow Place, on August 25.
In 2014, Karen & the Sorrows put out their first full-length record, The Names of Things, which was voted one of the Freeform American Roots Chart’s best debut albums of the year. A constant fixture in New York’s clubs and bars, the Sorrows have continued to build a strong local following as well as touring throughout the East Coast from New England to New Orleans.
The Sorrows are also at the center of a growing queer country scene, creating a community for people who love country music even if country music doesn’t always love them back. “Now more than ever, we are grateful to be in community with so many amazing musicians,” Pittelman says. “Country music can tell compelling stories about family, love, heartbreak, and strength. Those stories should include all of our families, all of our love, and especially all of our heartbreak and our strength.”
So the question is: a music genre in an of itself is genderless. It’s a sound, a style, and a form of storytelling. However, country music has, for as long as it’s existed, dealt with certain tropes…the man who has lost his woman, the woman who has been cheated on by her man, the farm that has failed, the relationship that has broken down, etc., and a lot of these have been cast in a hetero-centric voice. We’ve heard a lot of this from the so-called “bro-country” movement which has been derogatorily dismissed for its primarily Caucasian, frathouse perspective.
What has the reaction been from audiences upon hearing this style of music through the experience of the LGBTQ community and from people of color?
Pittelman says, “There are so many ways to fall in love with a song, and, of course, you can have a profound connection to a piece of music even if you have nothing in common with the musician or the story they’re telling. On the other hand, I think something starts to break in your heart, slowly, over time, if you never see your own life reflected back to you by the musicians making the songs you love. What people in our audiences have said to me again and again is: I always loved country music, but I never thought I’d hear a song about me. And I never thought I’d have a chance to listen to it in a space where I felt welcome.
“Genre itself may be genderless, but I don’t think it’s ahistorical. The history of how a genre’s sound and style evolves is also a history of who has had the power, resources, and access to record and distribute that music—and that is where racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia become defining forces. I don’t think it’s overdramatic to say that when you hear a song that tells the truth about your life, it’s the kind of thing that can help keep you alive. And I believe that someone, somewhere is always singing the song you need. The question is: can you find them? Can they find you? And if not, why?”
Now about that Spotify playlist:
1. Rosanne Cash, Seven Year Ache – This song is my root. I remember one Friday night of my childhood where my mother just listened to it over and over again for hours. And that was on vinyl, so she couldn’t just hit repeat, she had to move the needle every time. That took commitment.
2. Kamara Thomas & the Ghost Gamblers, You Wreck Me – Kamara Thomas helped create the current Brooklyn Country scene, which is part of what’s made it possible for us to do what we’re doing. I am also her super-fan. Some of the things I love about her: the way she draws on the country music she grew up with and then transforms it into a sound all her own, the ways she is thinking about and deconstructing the mythology of the American West, the way she fills the whole room with her presence as a performer.
3. Conway Twitty, Next in Line – I think the pedal steel makes the most beautiful sound in the world, and that’s why so many of our songs center around Elana’s pedal steel playing. While the pedal steel is traditional country instrumentation, it’s not always in the spotlight. But Conway Twitty knew that John Hughey’s “crying” steel should be the star.
4. Jus Post Bellum, Sonny – I got the idea for the Another Country festival when I was playing a show with Jus Post Bellum a few years ago. Listening to Geoffrey craft these gorgeous, perfect songs that then turned American history inside out to examine it just blew my mind. I thought this is what country and Americana could really be if we were all brave enough to use these genres the way Jus Post Bellum does. Their whole album Oh July is phenomenal, but it’s usually “Sonny” that ends up stuck in my head.
5. Neil Young, Cortez the Killer – While we were making our new album, I printed out a big picture of Neil Young with our motto: WWNYDEIRTDH (What Would Neil Young Do Except in Regards to Darryl Hannah?) Because while it’s hard to get behind his decision to leave his wife of 36 years for Darryl Hannah, musically, Neil usually has the answer to most of our questions. And this song is my favorite.
6. Hurray for the Riff Raff, The Body Electric – So much of the music I love has an undercurrent of violence against women and I didn’t even realize how inured I’d become to it. But then Alynda Segarra sang: “Said you’re gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river/ Shoot me down, put my body in the river/ While the whole world sings, sing it like a song/ The whole world sings like there’s nothing going wrong.” And all the grief and sadness and anger that comes with being in a body on the wrong side of so many songs hit me all at once and I just started crying.
7. Sam Gleaves, Ain’t We Brothers – I felt something similar when I heard Sam sing this song live last year in Lexington, KY when we played with him on tour. I was listening to him and feeling the presence of the people I’ve lost and the people who came before me who never got to have a song that told the truth about their lives, their loves and their pain. My whole band felt it too and we all started crying—and while I may be a softie, I can promise you that Elana and my drummer Tami are pretty damn tough.
8. Songs: Ohia, I’ve Been Riding With the Ghost – I’ve made three records now with engineer Charles Burst at Seaside Lounge in Brooklyn. Each time, as we were planning the sessions, Charles asked me what I wanted the record to sound like. And each time I just said this album, Magnolia Electric Company. Steve Albini recorded it and I think it’s been well documented that he has magic powers. Also, “I’ve been running out of things I didn’t even know I was using” is one of my favorite lyrics ever.
9. Lavender Country, Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears – Patrick Haggerty’s trailblazing band Lavender Country made the first queer country album in 1973. So, of course, we’re all standing on his shoulders. Not only is he still as amazing and fiery a performer as ever, but he is going to come to New York in September to play our record release party with us, so I’m pretty over the moon about that, especially since we made our album lavender vinyl in his honor.
10. Dolly Parton, The Grass is Blue – I think this is one of the most perfect songs ever written. One thing that bums me out about so much of current pop country is that it doesn’t seem to even try for that poetic wit that elevates the best country songs. Obviously, Dolly is a master of that. Dolly is a master of everything, really.
11. Mount Moriah, Reckoning – There are a lot of great country songs sung to mamas. But when Heather McEntire pleas with her religious mother for acceptance—”Mama, dry your eyes/ Forget about the fire/ Look how my face smiles and shines/ Can you learn to know your child?”—it just rips my heart out. I’m also in love with the sound they got on this album.
12. Waylon Jennings, Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way – I’m pretty sure that what we’re doing with queer country isn’t what either Hank or Waylon had in mind, but I still appreciate the outlaw sentiment. Also, the monumental thump of Richie Albright’s drums. I’m obsessed with that.
13. Drive By Truckers, Danko/Manuel – This album, The Dirty South, is what made me want to start this band. There’s something about the sound that DBT makes that goes straight to my bones, even if that doesn’t make demographic sense for a queer Jewish girl from New York City. Also, I’m inspired by the ways they are able to think pretty deeply about whiteness, class, and the history of the south while also rocking out. This song isn’t the best example of that–anything off their last album American Band would be better–but I just love this song.
14. Kandia Crazy Horse, California – Kandia is playing with us at Another Country on Sunday and I’m so excited. I love her album Stampede, especially this song, “California.” And as she said last week in The Village Voice, “People need to be reminded [country] is not this narrow definition of what’s coming out of Nashville. I sing country in part because I am Native American and African and Scottish and that covers the original nations that made country music and Southern culture thrive from the start.”
More information about the Another Country Festival can be found here.